By Parveen Chopra
Different from fables and parables, teaching stories have meaning at many levels, and have been used as a tool for spiritual instruction in many wisdom traditions. Now they are also finding use in psychotherapy and education
There was a man who wanted to know about the mind, what it really was and whether computers would ever be as intelligent as humans. The man typed the following question into the most powerful contemporary computer (which took a whole floor of a university department): “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?”
The machine rumbled and muttered as it started to analyse its own computational habits. Eventually the machine printed its reply on a piece of paper. The man rushed over in excitement and found these words, neatly typed: “That reminds me of a story…”
Now, the above is a teaching story as well as a meta-story about the nature and importance of teaching stories. It makes you pause and think, indeed to ponder over it for a long time to get the message. Maybe you infer that the computer’s answer, as in many real life dilemmas and situations, cannot be a straight yes or no. At the same time, it teaches you that a story well-told can overcome the yes/no, black/white limitation and communicate the answer or solution in a roundabout way, but it always needs active participation of the reader or listener. The insight thus gained, the truth thus gleaned, is likely to stay with you for a long time. In one fell swoop, this story about the mega-computer also contemporises teaching stories, generally associated with oral traditions of the East.
Once you look you will find teaching stories in most wisdom traditions, including Sufism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Hasidic Judaism, the life of Jesus as manifest in the Gospels, and the stories of the desert fathers of early Christianity. Teaching stories are formally used as a tool for spiritual instruction in Sufism. Which means their influence is spread all over Middle East and Central Asia. But they have a particularly long tradition in Afghanistan. Zen stories of more recent vintage are equally powerful. In India, spiritual teachers and swamis always make it a point to include stories in their talks and discourses. Lately motivational speakers and New Age workshop leaders are employing them—because they too are aiming at transforming lives. What is pleasantly surprising, however, is to see more and more psychotherapists including teaching stories in counselling and therapy, and increasing awareness about their function in learning thinking skills and life skills.
Among the people responsible for the popularity of teaching stories in our times are Idries Shah, Robert Ornstein, D.T. Suzuki and Paul Reps. In his authentic books on Sufism, Shah related many teaching stories and went into their use in this mystic tradition. He also published a series of books on Mulla Nasruddin, making the loveable jester a household name. Ornstein looked at the psychological dimension of the teaching story, introducing this literary genre to the academia. Suzuki not only introduced Zen Buddhism to the world but also peppered his books with Zen stories. Reps published a popular collection of short Zen stories in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
What is a teaching story
Let us first understand what teaching stories are or are not. They are not fables or parables. A fable is a short tale which stars animal characters and carries a moral for the readers—Aesop’s Fables and Panchatantra are prime examples. Parables (there are many in the Bible like that of the Prodigal Son) usually aim to indoctrinate and are open to a simple interpretation. But teaching stories, says famous novelist Doris Lessing, are not didactic. “Their effects on the innermost part of the human mind is direct and certain.” She acknowledges that teaching stories helped her to get a realistic view of her talents.
Neither are teaching stories written only to amuse as folk tales or fairy tales. Rather, they are carefully designed to show effective ways of defining and responding to common life experiences. A story is an especially good means for this kind of communication because it works its way into consciousness in a way that direct instruction cannot do. Such stories are meant to be told and retold, visited and revisited, meditated upon, as they themselves may change shape, revealing themselves variously in different circumstances and at different stages of human development. The very fact of their repetition may reveal layers or slants of meaning that would remain hidden otherwise.
Since teaching stories have been etched in my memory more than any other kind of stories, these are the ones I tell to my 5-year-old son at bedtime. Far from getting bored, he listens intently, comes out with his own simple moral or message after the story is finished, and often laughs heartily, as at the Mulla story of the pregnant pot.
In contemporary India, spiritual gurus and swamis use teaching stories profusely and effectively in their talks and discourses. Ramakrishna Paramhansa is known for telling pithy tales. Osho had people in his staff whose duty it was to scour world literature to keep him supplied with stories, anecdotes and jokes.
At first sight, you may think that gurus tell stories to give welcome relief to the audience from the more serious and weighty topics of God, Self, and Enlightenment, no different from a marketing manager peppering his presentation with a few jokes and anecdotes. But the fact of the matter is that the masters use the stories consciously. They are also not oblivious to the fact that their exhortations for a pure life and one-pointed devotion to God hardly register, or are forgotten on the drive back from the lecture hall. It is the stories that stick in the mind, get into the deep recesses of the psyche and do their work of transformation silently.
Jaya Rao, Vedanta teacher, says: “The story helps the student to remember a principle. He may forget the principle but he will remember the story and through it, return to the principle.” Another reason, she says, teachers use stories is to draw the attention of those who may not be intellectually inclined, say for instance, children. To them the story is entertainment, but its deeper meaning will reveal itself to them at some point.
Jaya Rao acknowledges that she uses a lot of stories in her teachings, some taken from the scriptures and some from contemporary life. “Take the story about Krishna dancing on the head of Kalia Nag and overcoming him, at which point the wives of Kalia pay him homage,” she says. “This story has a deep meaning. The lake that Kalia poisoned stands for the mind and he himself for desires (which poison the mind). However, once we overcome desires, signified by Krishna dancing on Kalia, the objects of desire will come to us, signified by the wives.”
Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters), disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, says: “Stories capture the imagination, and are bound to be remembered for a long time. They also make the point more clearly than abstractions. Besides, usually they are funny.”
Indeed, the element of humour ensures the longevity of the stories, and precipitates deeper understanding and insight. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20th century philosopher, had once said that he could teach a philosophy class by telling jokes. According to Idries Shah: “The blow administered by the joke makes possible a transitory condition in which other things can be perceived.” Plato pointed out long time ago: “Serious things cannot be understood without laughable things.” However, if you stop at the humour level only, the deeper meaning may be missed altogether. If you don’t laugh, you’ve missed the point. If you only laugh, you’ve missed your chance for illumination.
Rumi will have the final word about he role and nature of teaching stories in a poem:
A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.
It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!
Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.
A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.
Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.
The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.
Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.
How to read a story
This is a simple Mulla story on the face of it, but read it and then let Robert Ornstein lead you on:
A man was walking home late one night when he saw Mulla Nasruddin searching under a street light on hands and knees for something on the ground.
“Mulla, what have you lost?” he asked.
“The key to my house,” Nasruddin said.
“I’ll help you look,” the man said.
Soon, both men were down on their knees, looking for the key.
After some time, the man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?”
Nasruddin waved his arm back toward the darkness. “Over there, in my house.”
The man jumped up. “Then why are you looking for it here?”
“Because there is more light here than inside my house.”
In The Psychology of Consciousness, Ornstein suggests you to ask the following questions:
What are you looking for?
Where are you looking for it?
Are you looking in a place where there’s a lot of light?
Contemplate this question: What is your key? What ideas come up?
Say: “I have lost my key.” How does that question make you feel? What does it mean to you? Where does it take you?
Then say: “My key is in my own house.” Where does that take you and how does it make you feel?
In spiritual and personal growth
The Mulla was a judge and arbitrator in a dispute. First the plaintiff’s advocate gave an eloquent discourse advancing his claims. The Mulla who had been listening intently agreed and said: “That’s right.” Next, it was the defendant’s turn and he was just as erudite. Once more Mulla nodded and said: “That’s right.” Witness to the Mulla’s lack of discrimination, the court clerk ventured: “They can’t both be right.” The Mullah agreed with him too, saying: “That’s right!”
Here we are able to see the paradox clearly. In our conditioning, we see things as either right or wrong, black or white. Linear thinking does not allow us to think laterally or holistically. Our minds wrestle in the dark dens of logic and lose the gist of life.
Mulla the judge has a witness in quantum physics which knows of a realm where particles behave as waves and vice versa. Can we not continue with this line of thinking and venture that maybe theists and atheists are both right, maybe those who believe in a personal God and those believing in an impersonal God are also equally right. A lot of sectarian disputes and ill-will can be put to rest thus.
Mulla’s persona itself seems able to teach something. It is doubtful that he was a historical person, but some accounts place him somewhere in the Middle East in the 13th century. A wise fool, he is a malleable character, fits in any locale, era or lends himself well for any set of personal traits and circumstances you give him. He can be rich, poor, ordained master, smuggler and cheat, and so on.
As for understanding and interpreting Zen stories, it will be good to look at the basic premise of Zen Buddhism:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
No dependence upon words
Direct pointing to the soul of man
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.
Naturally then, many Zen stories debunk rituals and rote knowledge, teach the value of here and now, with the teacher often employing some direct method of awakening.
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